The Mysterious 1938 Disappearance Of Marjorie West

The disappearance of a 4-year-old girl from Pennsylvania is a case that has mystified generations of true-crime sleuths. According to Crimewatch PA, Marjorie West's case is among the oldest recorded instances of a missing child.

Marjorie West and her family attended a church service on May 8, 1938, according to The Charley Project. It was Mother's Day and to celebrate, the West family traveled to White Gravel, Pennsylvania for an outdoor lunch. Once they arrived, 4-year-old Marjorie and her 11-year-old sister Dorothea played in the grassy area. They were warned to be careful of disturbing any rattlesnakes they might see, especially near one large rock, and so the girls spent the afternoon picking flowers for their mom. Meanwhile, McKean County Cold Cases reports that Marjorie's father, Shirley, went fishing, and their mother, Cecilia, relaxed in the car.

Marjorie was dressed in a navy blue dress, a coat with a pink collar, and a red hat in the style of famous actress Shirley Temple, according to The Charley Project. In fact, Marjorie looked a lot like Shirley Temple, the beloved child actress — she had curly ringlets of red hair, blue eyes, and freckles.

Snakes, bears, and hundreds of oil wells

The Charley Project reports that the last time Marjorie was seen was around 3:00 that Mother's Day afternoon. Dorothea left her sibling alone for just for a few minutes to ask her mom a question, and the 4-year-old disappeared.

According to The Guardian, the search for Marjorie was absolutely massive, involving more than 3,000 people who scanned the area for Marjorie. It was a challenging task, as they had to kill rattlesnakes and examine hundreds of old oil well holes dug into the ground that a tiny child could fall into. Police even brought bloodhounds to aid in the search and oil well workers were given the day off to join the search party. The Allegheny Forest of Pennsylvania, with dense underbrush, streams, territorial mother bears, and rattlesnakes, was no place for a young child. Even after hundreds of hours of work put into the search for Marjorie, which spanned 35 square miles, she was never found.

Leads that went nowhere

The only sign of the missing girl was a bouquet of crumpled violets and a scrap of lace fabric found near the large rock that the kids had been told not to approach (via The Guardian). At one point during the first week after Marjorie went missing, someone found what looked like a freshly unearthed grave. But in actuality, in was just a hole where two men had been stashing some bottles of wine (per The Charley Project). 

During the search, Cecilia stayed at home waiting by the phone, while Shirley searched around in the Allegheny Woods for a week straight, only returning home to eat meals. According to Narratively, there are lots of theories about where little Marjorie might have gone. She could have been kidnapped by one of the three cars that were seen passing through the area. Witnesses saw one man in a Plymouth sedan who was speeding so fast that he ran another car into a ditch. Rumors also spread about an alleged nomad that was living in the woods.

Kidnapped because of her cuteness?

Another theory pointed to a nearby man who had a "mentally unbalanced" adult son that had a tendency to wander the area (per Narratively). But none of the theories nor leads panned out. According to the Oleans Times Herald, rewards between $2,000 to $10,000 were offered for her safe return, but the reward offers didn't bring any concrete information.

Narratively reports that police then questioned already-incarcerated serial killers, like the Postcard Killer, who had kidnapped young boys in the same general area decades later, but didn't uncover anything new. A 55-year-old was arrested in the same area where Marjorie disappeared for fighting with another adult, but he was released after an interrogation. Some wondered if she was kidnapped to be put up for adoption to a family who would pay a high price for a child, which was known to have happened at the time. According to the Oleans Times Herald, since Marjorie looked so much like actress Shirley Temple, kidnappers might have chosen her for her adorable looks.

Sylvia Waldrop London offers a new lead

As time went on, speculation over Marjorie's disappearance continued, per The Charley Project. Some people wondered if she was taken to Canada or if she was in the southern United States. Many believed that maybe the little girl with curly red hair is still alive (via Narratively). Now, she would be a senior citizen. One editor found a woman named Sylvia Waldrop London, who looked similar to Marjorie West, and who claimed that her mom told her that she'd been abducted from a park as a child (per Medium). 

Her mother said that while driving through the Allegheny Forest, her husband found a little girl on Mother's Day. The couple's own daughter recently died, and so they claimed to have taken the child to their farm and raised her as their own. Naturally, claims of this nature have to be taken with a grain of salt, as they are hard to confirm. Unfortunately, London died before her claims could be substantiated.

The most recent tips

Crimewatch PA reports that in 2012, Pennsylvania State Police were able to obtain DNA from a member of the West family. Now, her family member's DNA is stored in the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) Missing Person database, and could be tested if any new evidence appeared. Per Vox, even if Marjorie West is alive and well today, she might have no idea of her origins. According to The Guardian, lots of Marjorie's relatives do believe she is alive somewhere. Dorothea's granddaughter revealed that her grandmother talked about Marjorie with great sadness and often felt responsible for her disappearance.

Crimewatch PA reports that in 2012, police got a tip that an elderly woman in Rochester, New York looked exactly like Marjorie West, and so they went and spoke with her. But once again, this theory was debunked when the woman's niece provided information about the woman's real parents, who had immigrated to the United States. For now at least, it seems that the disappearance of Marjorie West is a tragic cold case with no real answers.